Just when South Ozone Park residents thought the fight to stop the placement of a juvenile detention center was close to being won, City Comptroller Scott Stringer on Tuesday approved a limited contract submitted by Sheltering Arms and the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) to erect a Close to Home facility in the area.
Stringer, who previously denied the contract due to various undisclosed inconsistencies in June, also announced that he is reviewing the agency’s “use of improper payment methods in the contracting and construction of these facilities,” according to a press release.
South Ozone Park residents have been vocal about their opposition to the juvenile detention center and have even filed a lawsuit, along with the South Ozone Park Civic Association West, to stop the process. ACS is planning to open the 18-bed limited secure facility at 133-23 127 St. near another Close to Home center and the Skyway Men’s Shelter.
Councilman Ruben Wills, who has worked with residents to stop the opening, said Stringer’s approval of the contract was bound to happen.
“The process of reviewing city contracts is not infinite,” Wills said. “We knew the comptroller would eventually be compelled to register Sheltering Arms’ limited secure contract with ACS. So, we thank him for his due diligence with respect to that matter. Nonetheless, our fight lives on.”
The comptroller also announced that a newly formed Research and Investigation Unit will focus on irregular contracting and payment methods associated with limited secure placement facilities after discovering that several city agencies, including ACS, were using a payment method called PON1 meant for non-procurement expenditures.
The payment method allowed ACS and other city agencies to evade rules required for contracts by service providers, which would normally go through a bidding process, essentially spending millions of taxpayer dollars improperly, according to Stringer’s office.
“The city did an end-run around procurement rules when they set up, paid for and prepared facilities for use as Close to Home juvenile detention centers,” Stringer said. “We are going to investigate this program to determine the financial implications of the breakdown in the contracting process.”
According to a spokesperson for ACS, the agency “has investigated and corrected its payment practices” and has worked with Stringer’s office to register the contracts of the three nonprofit service providers that lacked appropriate contracts.
Community Board 10 Chairperson Betty Braton said she knows that Stringer did everything he could to prevent the registration of the contract for as long as he could.
“Am I happy with it? No, but I understand why,” Braton said. “We will be continuing to work with Council member Wills, with the Department of Buildings and every agency in any way shape or form involved to find avenues that we can pursue to prevent its opening.”
South Ozone Park residents have come together to hold rallies every Saturday to voice their opposition and have created a group called Stop The Prison in S.O.P. to petition the city.
“You can’t afford to be a spectator in this fight,” the group said in a Facebook post. “Think about what is going to happen to our community should this place open.”